Sha’Carri Richardson is still America’s biggest track attraction
Richardson waved, still breathing heavily after winning the 200 meters. She wore blonde hair with rosy highlights, red fishnet leggings over a pink running shirt, jeweled nail extensions and gemstones set on her forehead. The screams escalated as she walked towards the girls, one of whom asked her how she felt about her race.
“I’m excited about it, baby,” Richardson replied.
Richardson captivated America for a week last summer when she became a pop-up Olympic sweetheart who suddenly and shockingly lost her Olympic chance. At 21, Richardson won the 100 meters at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Oregon, with a piercing style in the tradition of her idol, Florence Griffith Joyner; shameless bluster; and a ferocious speed that makes her the fourth fastest woman in American history. Days later, her drug test came back positive for marijuana, which Richardson said she used to soothe emotional turmoil after learning from a reporter during an interview that her birth mother had died.
Marijuana is a prohibited substance under the World Anti-Doping Agency code. The sanction wiped out Richardson’s bunk in Tokyo and sparked widespread debate, which included a letter from House Oversight Committee representatives to the AMA urging them to rescind their marijuana policy, on why the substance had been banned in the first place.
This week, Richardson will return to Hayward Field with his first opportunity to play for an American team since last summer’s upheaval. When the U.S. championships begin on Thursday, Richardson will be favored in the 100 meters and among the favorites to stand on the podium in the 200 meters. A top-three finish will advance her to July’s world championships, also in Eugene, being held in North America for the first time. Due to his absence from the Tokyo Olympics, the world championships would be the biggest event of Richardson’s young career.
Anti-doping rules that cost Sha’Carri Richardson have a controversial political history
Richardson has kept a low profile this year, at least offline, entering only a handful of races and turning down most media inquiries and sponsorship offers. It was a strategic choice, an effort to quell what his agent, former Olympian Renaldo Nehemiah, called “Sha’Carri Mania”. Sudden fame swept over Richardson last summer, and for a time it overwhelmed her.
“We had a lot of commercial interest,” Nehemiah said. “But business comes with a lot of obligations. We had to learn from last year.
At the New York Grand Prix, Richardson received by far the loudest ovation from the starting blocks. She finished second in the 100 meters in 10.85 seconds, her best time since trials last summer and 0.02 seconds behind Aleia Hobbs, her close friend and former varsity teammate at LSU. She felt “fantastic” about the race, she said during a brief stop to speak to the media in the mixed zone. She then won the 200 meters in 22.38.
As always, Richardson’s style matched his speed. No one has ever shown up to a track meet and needed to ask, “Which one is Sha’Carri?” The fishnet suit was a new twist added to her Technicolor hair, elongated eyelashes and greenhouse-like nails.
“I always stand out,” Richardson said. “No matter how I performed, no matter what the media had to say, I was speaking out and showing people that no matter how a company, people, the media might try to limit you, always stand by your truth. I express it through what I wear.
At the New York Grand Prix, a youth meet preceded the pro event, which explained the horde of girls who rushed Richardson just outside the stadium. Richardson signed and posed for photos. She kept saying she had to leave, then would stay and sign or pose for more.
After Richardson left, four girls from the Prospect Park relay team, ages 9 and 10, separated from the peloton. One of them held a flower Richardson had given him from his victory bouquet, a yellow petal falling to the ground. When asked why they loved Richardson so much, they provided quick answers.
“She has incredible style.”
“She’s very cool and inspiring.”
“She has an amazing personality.”
“She kept saying yes when everyone was calling her name.”
In her headphones as she warmed up in New York, Richardson played Drake’s “No Friends in the Industry.” Many athletes listen to Drake’s words before a competition, but how many of them are Drake lyrics? The song includes the flashing line: “And I’m like Sha’Carri/Smoke ’em on and off the track.”
Olympic athletes in the United States process fame differently than their peers in professional team sports. They remain mostly anonymous outside of their niche field, except for a few weeks every four years when they become some of the most sought-after athletes in the world. They have an incentive to maximize their exposure, as a spike could solidify their financial future. This happens to many in their early twenties. It can be undocked.
“It’s all about staying true to yourself and not letting so many forces weigh down inside of it,” said Raven Saunders, who won silver in the shot put at the Tokyo Olympics. . “Once you get to that point, there are so many people wanting access to you, so many people wanting things from you. You have to balance: what can you give of yourself and what can’t you give? I find that many of us struggle with giving too much.
Richardson experienced a supercharged version of the phenomenon last year. At the trials, she dominated the primetime 100 meters and raced into the stands to hug her grandmother, who had raised her in Dallas. In an on-track interview, Richardson said, “I’m that girl.” In another, Richardson revealed that her birth mother had recently passed away.
She exuded a rare blend of confidence, vulnerability and athletic charisma. Nehemiah’s phone kept ringing with “people throwing stupid amounts of money at me,” he said. The suspension became national news and only increased his sudden fame.
“Sha’Carri Mania got out of control,” Nehemiah said.
After Richardson was forced to skip Tokyo, her comeback run at the Prefontaine Classic in late summer 2021 featured ubiquitous Nike ads featuring her – and when it came time to run, she finished last, in 11.14 seconds. “Count me if you want, talk all the time [stuff] you want because I’m here to stay,” she said afterwards. “I’m not finished.” For a time, she used a photo of herself giving a provocative and on-track interview with her rivals laughing behind her as her Twitter avatar.
In quieter times, Nehemiah said, Richardson confided that she wishes other sprinters got some of the attention directed at her. “She’s like, ‘Yeah, Renaldo, yeah, I know I’m good and all that. But they have the medals.’
As reticent as Richardson may have been in person, she often fueled controversy with an active and combative Twitter account. “The only reason I’m even on social media is to see what she posts,” Nehemiah said with a laugh.
Richardson frequently gets into fights with random Twitter users, increasing feuds that could be avoided altogether, which Nehemiah attributed to her “protective mechanism” and the generation to which she belongs.
“I feel bad for these young people because it really hurts them,” Nehemiah said. “Even though it may hurt them, their identity, their self-esteem – everything – is tied to how many likes you get, how many reposts. I can’t let go, because who knows? If we were born into it, we would be the same.
Days before the New York meet, the USA Track & Field account tweeted a photo of Richardson with a message promoting his showdown with Tokyo bronze medalist Gabby Thomas in the 200 at the New York Grand Prix, a standard promotional device. In a since-deleted tweet, Richardson demanded that the USATF – her national governing body, of which she is a member – stop using her name and likeness for “clickbait”.
Nehemiah explained the tweet as the product of youthful naivety. Richardson is still just 22 and she has made strides in the sport during the pandemic, preventing face-to-face meetings with some of the sport’s power brokers. On the eve of the New York Grand Prix, Nehemiah stayed with Richardson until 1 a.m. “giving her the ABCs of certain things,” like the role of the USATF in her career. Nehemiah said Richardson did not know who USATF CEO Max Siegel was.
Nehemiah wants to guide Richardson but not take away her authenticity, the trait that most connects her to fans who otherwise might not care about athletics. Hobbs, one of the fastest women in the nation, hosted Richardson at LSU when Richardson made his official recruiting visit. “That’s always how she was,” Hobbs said. “She’s still the same.”
“Her fans who like it, she’s like a champion to them,” Nehemiah said. “She says it without looking for excuses. I had people [tell me]: ‘I feel like that! And she just spoke for me. This is why these people gravitate. And then you have the others saying, “How dare this woman – a black woman of all things – be so brash and arrogant?” Because it’s generally more acceptable to guys. Now you have the next iteration of Flo Jo with voice, not just flair, and they go, ‘Whoa! What is that?’ And it is not an act.